Living in Southern California, I get to spend a lot of time exploring the beautiful state and national parks of the American Southwest. Grand Canyon National Park is one of those places I return to time and time again. On a recent visit with my family for spring break, I stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and felt compelled to run from the south rim to the north rim and back. This wasn’t just an aimless hunch, as I had completed a Rim to Rim and a Rim to Rim to Rim in two days. I had never done a Rim to Rim to Rim (R3) in a single day though, and new in my heart that this was the year to attempt it. In this guide, I’ll share my planning, training, gear, nutrition, and trip report from what turned out to be a successful R3 trail run.
Getting There and Accommodations: Starting on the South Rim
- Intro: To attempt a Grand Canyon R3, the first step is getting to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park. There are a few R3 runners/hikers that start at the north rim, but this guide (and most attempts) will start from the south.
- Location: S Entrance Rd, Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023
- Accommodation: Most R3 runners/hikers will arrive the day before their attempt and stay in a hotel. I stayed at the Maswik Lodge, which is just a stones throw from Bright Angel Trailhead. Accommodations on the south rim are expensive, but worth the price in my opinion. If you don’t mind driving, you can save money by booking in nearby Tusayan or Williams. With a ~3:30am start time for many, the closer the better.
- Trailhead Transport: Once you have your accommodation set, you’ll want to focus on getting to the South Kaibab or Bright Angel trailhead. I drove my own vehicle and parked at Pipe Creek Vista near South Kaibab, since day hikers are not permitted to park at the lot near the trailhead. Another great option is to use the 24-hour grand canyon taxi service (928. 638.2822 ). If you’re not planning on leaving early, you may be able to use the park shuttle services as well. Much of your decision here will be based on your route of choice for R3 which I will detail in the section below.
Trail Profile: SK-NK-SK or SK-NK-BA???
South Rim to Phantom Ranch: The biggest decision R3 hikers need to make is which trails they will take. The consensus from almost everyone is that South Kaibab is the best option to start on the downhill. South Kaibab is a 7.1 mile trail that will take you down to the Phantom Ranch with a loss of 4780ft. The other option, Bright Angel, has the same drop in elevation, but over 10 miles. Saving three miles on the initial downhill is a good idea if you have the legs for it. Some people with bad knees will take Bright Angel to avoid the steep pounding of South Kaibab. South Kaibab has no available water, but this isn’t much of an issue for downhill running with an early start.
Phantom Ranch to North Kaibab: Once you reach Phantom Ranch there is only one trail option to choose. You will head up to North Kaibab and return to Phantom Ranch the same way.
Phantom Ranch to South Rim: This final leg of Rim to Rim to Rim is where things get interesting. The consensus here is that Bright Angel is the way to go since it has water and is less steep, despite being 3 miles longer. I disagree with consensus though. I prefer the steeper trail to minimize mileage, and it’s easy enough to carry 3-4 liters of water from Phantom Ranch. South Kaibab is also far more beautiful. Finally, by the time most return to the south rim, South Kaibab is fully covered in shade (even on a hot 100° September day like my R3). You’ll have to go with your intuition here and pick the trail that works best for your fitness level.
- Distance: 43-50 miles depending on your choice of trails. My choice of SK-NK-SK was the shortest possible distance.
- Elevation Gain: 11,500ft with some variations based on trail choice
- Maximum Elevation: 8236 ft at the North Kaibab trailhead
- Minimum Elevation: 2462 ft at the Colorado River
- Difficulty: (5/5) Do not attempt this without massive amounts of training and planning
- Dog Friendly: No
- Permit Required: Permits are required for overnight backcountry camping, but not currently for day use
- Parking: I parked at Pipe Creek Vista near SK trailhead since I was hiking SK-NK-SK. If you’re hiking SK-NK-BA, you’ll want to park closer to BA trailhead and take a taxi to SK.
- Water: There is no water on South Kaibab, but Bright Angel does have water (PDF with sources). Phantom Ranch, Cottonwood, Pumphouse, and North Kaibab are also sources of water, but they can be shut off at times. VIEW THIS backcountry update to ensure water availability for your dates!
- Weather: You can have freezing temperatures on the rims, with 100+ in the canyon. Be ready for anything, but especially for the heat. The heat kills people every year.
- Trail Condition: Rutted mule trails, single track, cut steps, and more. Nothing technical, but trail shoes are required.
- Cell Phone Reception: Patchy to none. I was able to get a signal at South Kaibab and North Kaibab trailheads.
- Total Time: My total time was 15 hours with 12.5 hours of moving time (exactly as I had planned). Some will take 24, some will take 10. Your time is not that important, but you need to base your gear and nutrition choices on a realistic timeframe for your abilities.
Trail Map And Elevation
My Gear and Nutrition for R3
Gear and nutrition are deeply personal and vary from person to person. They key here is that you tinker with what works for you and get all of your choices dialed in well before you attempt an R3. I trained for hundreds of miles and climbed over 100,000ft of elevation in the summer heat to ensure all of my selections would pass the muster for my R3.
For nutrition, I find liquid calories work very well, and Tailwind is the best for my stomach. Sodium is also critical, and LMNT works the best for me. I did my R3 in 100 degree heat with zero cramps or stomach issues. For food, I like things that are sweet and salty without much fiber. This keeps my stomach happy over long miles. It took me a long time to figure out what works here, and my R3 selections are listed below.
- 200cal of Tailwind per hour (~48oz total)
- 1 pack of LMNT per hour (2.52 oz)
- 1 gel per hour (12 total)
- 1 Clif Blok per 2 hours (6 total)
- 1 Bag of M&Ms (eat early to avoid melting)
- 1 Bag of espresso beans (eat early to avoid melting)
- 2 Uncrustable sandwiches
- 20 slices of salami
My R3 gear selections took me far less tinkering than nutrition, and is essentially what I take with me on every weekend peakbagging adventure at home. The only big additions were an external battery charger should I get injured and need to charge my phone, and a water filter.
- 6x .5L soft flasks
- Black Diamond Storm headlamp
- Black Diamond Carbon Z trekking poles
- Sawyer mini filter
- First aid kit
- Salomon ADV Skin 15
- Hat, buff, and sunglasses
- Running shorts, long sleeve Patagonia shirt, and Patagonia Houdini Jacket
- Salomon SLAB Ultra v3 shoes
- Toe socks with an extra pair
My Training for Grand Canyon R3
It goes without saying that a ton of training is required for a successful Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim. I mentioned above that you’ll need to train with your gear and dial in your nutrition. You’ll want to do that in conditions that will simulate the conditions of R3. This is easy for me since it is very hot in Southern California, and I have an abundance of high altitude (8000ft+) trails to build my endurance on. I started my training after returning from Croatia in mid-June, and built everything around a three month block. A standard week for me consisted of one mid week run that was short/intense, a longer bike ride or two, a day in the pool, and a big weekend run/hike. I gained a minimum of 4000ft of vert every week, and did my best to train in the heat when possible. My training peaked in late August with a 21 mile day gaining 9000ft of vert, and then I gave myself three weeks to rest and taper. All of my weekend runs took place between 6000-11,500ft of elevation, so R3 actually felt a good deal easier on the lungs. For those of you that live in flat areas without access to trails, you’ll have to get much more creative to ensure you arrived prepared.
0.0 Miles – My journey began with a 2:00am wakeup at the Maswik Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I took my time drinking coffee and eating a light breakfast, before stretching out and hitting my foam roller. I drove myself to the Pipe Creek Vista parking area, since I would be hiking back up South Kaibab and returning to my 4runner. It was a dark and crisp morning when I turned off my headlights, right around 3:15am. The trail that connects Pipe Creek Vista to South Kaibab is a flat paved route that runs right alongside the rim, and tacks on 1-mile each way. I actually enjoyed this 1-mile addition, as it allowed my legs to warm up before hitting the downhill. Just after descending on South Kaibab, I could see two green eyes reflecting back my way! I was happy to see that it was a bighorn sheep!
I started Grand Canyon R3 with only .5L of water since it was cold, and I don’t usually need any on the downhills. Even though I wasn’t hungry, I kept to my nutrition place with gels and chews. Once you bonk, it’s too late, so get the fluids and foods in early.
7.5 Miles – I spent most of the morning running by myself in the dark. No big deal for me, as I did a ton of training for it. If you have never hammered steep downhills with a headlamp, don’t let R3 be your first. This is definitely something you want to dummy run at least once. I made it to Phantom Ranch in the dark, and filled up 2L of fluids/calories, and prepped my pouches with gels and chews. I met two Italian runners that had just finished a 100k in the alps. It was nice to share a few miles with them, but they dropped back and the heat of ‘The Box’ started very early this day.
If you do SK-NK-BA like me, you can think of an R3 attempt as six 7-mile sections. With my first section complete, it was time to hit the gradual uphill towards Cottonwood campground.
12.0 Miles – Midway through the slight climb up to Cottonwood campground, dawn began to break over the canyon. The weather was still pleasant for my taste, but I could tell it was going to be a very hot day. I picked up the pace a little, in hopes that I could hammer out the climb to the North Kaibab trailhead in the shade.
One of my favorite sections of the North Kaibab trail is just before Cottonwood where you can see millions of years into the past with each brightly colored striation of rock. That excitement is always tempered by the climb that awaits though. It was at this early stretch of my R3 journey that my body decided it hated GU gels, after eating them and loving them for 6 months of intense training! Luckily the Clif Bloks and Tailwind were a hit.
21.6 Miles – I made it to the North Kaibab trailhead in 6:24, which was well under my goal of 7 hours. I was feeling great, but knew I needed to stick to my plan of taking a 30-40 minute break here to eat and allow my body to absorb the calories. I ate an Uncrustable and 10 slices of salami, then took the time to load up on Tailwind and LMNT. I new my body would need the extra sodium on this day with the temperatures already high.
27 Miles – As I made my way downhill on North Kaibab I was really feeling the heat and decided to take a stop at the Pumphouse Ranger Station. I could see on the thermometer that it was already 100 degrees in the box and it was still early. I kept my hat, buff, and shirt wet to help keep my body cool.
The Box was absolutely baking in the midday heat, and a lot of people were looking worse for the wear. There were also a lot of people getting cramps. I was cruising through at this point though. I had trained myself in the heat over the summer and the sodium in my LMNT mixture had my body functioning well. I was also stopping at every opportunity to dunk my head, hat, and buff into the cool running water.
35.5 Miles – I made it back to Phantom Ranch, and although I was feeling good, stuck to my plan to take a 30-40 minute break here. I bought a $5.00 cup of lemonade at the general store and had a great time chatting with hikers, runners, and campers on the nearby picnic tables. They all have the same opinion of R3 runners/hikers…they think we’re insane. Maybe they’re right. After a nice break, I made my way towards the river to begin my climb up and out of the Canyon via South Kaibab. I was fully loaded with 3L of water, but was feeling light with most of my nutrition depleted.
My plan to hit South Kaibab turned out to be perfect. The trail was empty and covered in shade for almost every section. I was also happy to have 3 fewer miles to cover than those on Bright Angel. With 6 500ml bottles of fluids, I made sure to drink 1 every mile to help me keep my legs moving towards the rim. This is also my favorite part of the Grand Canyon, and far more beautiful than the views on Bright Angel IMO.
Once I reached Cedar Ridge, I knew I only had a 5k (3.1 miles) left to hike. Even though I had been in that spot many times before, it was a little crazy to look out at the north rim and see how far I had gone. Surprisingly, my legs and lungs were feeling really good at this point, a sure sign that I got my nutrition and training just right.
43 Miles – After 43 miles of hiking and running, and with 15 hours on my feet, I completed my Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim attempt. The sun was just setting, and made for the perfect back drop to close out an epic day. Best of all, I knew I would make it to the Maswik Food Court in time to order all of the pizza, burrito bowls, and burgers I could get my hands on. This adventure was truly incredible, and I can’t wait to come back to do it all again!
Follow Me on Strava:
Below you will find my tracked course for Grand Canyon R3 on Strava. If you would like to see what I’m up to and also view my training for Grand Canyon R3 2024, make sure to follow along!